and every expanding galaxy of superheroes that he spawned seems to be everywhere these
days. But when the Man of Steel first debuted in Action Comics #1 on June 1, 1938 no one could have
foreseen the cultural tsunami that
was quietly unleashed.
Rare mint condition copies
of that book have sold at auction for more
than $2 million. The most famous of those rare copies once belonged to Superman obsessed actor Nicholas
Cage. How obsessed? Well, he named his son Ka-El, his hero’s birth name on his planet of
origin. Cage paid $110,000 for the
book in 1997 before collector comic
books began to explode in
value. The book and other parts of
Cage’s extensive collection were stolen a few years later, and then recovered. But Cage, a notorious spend thrift, got into big trouble with the IRS over back taxes and sold the treasured relic for $2.16 million a few ago to help settle that debt and stay out of prison.
Meanwhile over the last almost two
decades or so DC Comics, publisher of Action Comics, Superman,
and related books, has repeatedly tweaked and made over their signature hero who was losing popularity to the grittier, angst ridden characters in the rival
Marvel Comics universe. His look was updated, story lines made grimmer, and if I remember right, he was twice “killed.”
And in what has become a stand-by
comic book trick, he was re-launched in an “alternative
timeline.” Superman traditionalists like say, Jerry Seinfeld, were predictably aghast. But all of that
change kept the character in the news and sagging sales evidently blipped up.
The biggest news of all, however, was
the re-launch of the Superman movie franchise. With trailers
inescapable in every movie house, TV ads, gallons of
ink spilled in newspaper and magazine layouts, and electrons gone wild with orchestrated on-line buzz, Superman:
Man of Steel open nationwide in 2013. With a more
subdued color palate than the celebrated Christopher Reeves films
and a brooding, alienated hero in search of himself producers hoped to
score the box office coup of the summer. It wasn’t. The Marvel movie factory continued to rule
Since then another big hyped flick, Superman
Vs. Batman, was widely derided by critics and disappointed fans
of both DC franchises. But it did make
blockbuster ticket sales, just not big enough to challenge Marvel. The Man of Steel was the leader of The
Justice League in 2019 but other characters, especially Wonder Woman
and the Black Panther got more screen time. And it, too, failed to match the Marvel Avengers
Whatever Superman’s troubles,
however, there is no denying the power of what he started. Even all of the quirky heroes from Marvel owe
everything to him.
Comics #1 was released by National Allied Publications, which
would later become known as D.C.
Comics. The book is considered the Holy Grail of comic book collectors because its cover story features the first
appearance of Superman.
The character originated in a villain named The Superman in a short
story by nerdy teen-age science
fiction fans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster which appeared in an early sci-fi
fanzine published by Siegel in
Efforts to turn it into a daily comic
strip were unsuccessful and the duo set the character aside to work on other projects. Later, Siegel re-imagined the character as a hero, rather than a villain and the
two began a six-year quest to find a publisher.
When National Allied decided to
launch a new adventure anthology comic, editor Vin Sullivan was instructed to
find material among unpublished submissions. He picked several stories, including Zatra
the Magician, Tex Thompson, and even The Adventures of Marco Polo. He found art by Schuster with text by Siegel
intended as a daily newspaper script.
Thinking one panel with the caped Superman lifting a car would make a good cover, Sullivan told the pair he
would buy the story if they re-pasted
if for a comic book.
With a few panels re-drawn and other minor changes, the two did just that and were paid $130 between them. The publisher
never intended Superman to become a running character, but overwhelming public response made him a fixture.
The first story had most of the features of the Superman legend—being
sent by his family as an infant from a doomed planet to Earth, whose “yellow sun”
gives the baby amazing powers. Turned over to an orphanage, the baby surprises everyone with feats of strength (the Ma and Pa Kent story line was added later.) The baby grows
up to be mild mannered Clark Kent, who discovers his vast powers and vows to use them for good by
assuming the secret identity of
Superman. Kent becomes a newspaper reporter alongside beautiful Lois Lane, who will soon need rescuing.
Soon Action Comics was selling 1
million copies a month and Siegel and Schuster had launched their long sought-after
daily strip as well. In 1939 demand was
high enough to launch Superman as a single character monthly book—unheard of at the time—while
continuing to feature him as the lead story in Action Comics.
By the mid ‘40’s there were animated cartoons then live action serials at the movie houses. The Adventures of Superman became a long running TV hit in the ‘50’s. And a series of high budget special effects
laden films became blockbusters beginning in the ‘70’s, unleashing costumed
comic book heroes as a main staple of American film. And Superman and spin-off characters returned to TV in animated series, and programs
and Clark, Superboy, and Supergirl.
And he has even become a character in a popular series of Lego movies.